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(Credit: Warner Bros)

Film

The disturbing uncanny valley of Robert Zemeckis film 'Polar Express'

@Russellisation

The standards of motion picture technology in the modern age have reached staggering heights, showcasing visuals so impressive that the cinema of the 20th century wouldn’t even be able to comprehend its sheer spectacle. From the early stop-motion artistry of Ray Harryhausen to the pioneering efforts of John Lasseter at Pixar, animation and computer-generated imagery (CGI) has come a long way. 

Though much like any trying process, like one trying to grow a handlebar moustache, there is nearly always a period of bizarre transition, when the hair is so chaotic that it resembles a bad beard, or, in the case of CGI, when the technology doesn’t quite match the ambition of the filmmaker. For cinema, this period of transition occurred in the early 2000s, with the likes of Die Another Day, The Scorpion King and Freddy vs. Jason acting as the guinea pigs for ever-improving special effects, becoming sacrificial lambs for the cinematic cause. 

One such film, The Polar Express, was released shortly after this period of cinematic self-loathing and hoped to bring harmony to the world of film with a brand new motion-capture method of live-action CGI. The result is something of a festive purgatory where director Robert Zemeckis welcomes us into a world of soft, pliable faces with characters who wish their time in the eternal animated hellhole would abruptly end. 

Optioning the original book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, Hollywood star Tom Hanks saw potential in the Christmas tale that followed a young boy’s magical adventure to the North Pole on a dreamlike train. Requesting to play the role of the train conductor as well as Santa Claus, Hanks leapt on the proviso of the sale that stated that the film could not be animated, an issue the potential director Robert Zemeckis unanimously disagreed with. 

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“Live-action would look awful, and it would be impossible – it would cost $1 billion instead of $160 million,” Zemeckis told Wired in 2004, outlining his initial disappointment with the live-action proposal. Indeed, Zemeckis was right, as once he and Tom Hanks acquired the rights to the book the following year, the two filmmakers set out to create “one of the worst looking cinematic disasters of all time”. 

Taking a trip down the infamously terrifying uncanny valley, The Polar Express struggles to reflect the real-life emotions and facial expressions of a human character, instead opting for poor-quality renders that suggest nothing behind the glazed eyes of the main cast. Though the animation does a reasonably decent job at recreating objects, landscapes and even fantastical creatures, it really struggles with humans, yielding bizarre, disturbing and often hilarious results as a computer tries to recreate accurate facial expressions.

This same uncanny aspect can be seen in the early works of Pixar that seemed to nail the animation of ants, fantastical toys and fish, though often struggled with human characters in the likes of Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo. In this period of transition, the shortcomings of motion picture technology were constantly exposed, with The Polar Express becoming the poster child for a cinematic industry reaching far beyond its means. 

As a result, the existence of The Polar Express is a truly bizarre one, representing a more innocent period of time when such ambitious failures were embraced rather than tossed aside, even if the film does resemble the bizarre directorial efforts of an apathetic computer programme who has never heard of Christmas before.